The Hanging Gardens of Montparnasse

from the Artsology series The Arts Adventurer

I had read about the Jardin (French for “Garden”) Atlantique, which was also known as "The Hanging Gardens" of Montparnasse, and decided I should search it out. I didn’t know much about it, other than it was described as "futuristic," and of course the reference to "hanging gardens" brings to mind The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There is some controversy as to whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually existed or if they were just a poetic creation, due to a lack of evidence and no exact location ever determined. But the legend was that within the walled city of Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens for his wife, Queen Amytis, because she missed the green hills and valleys of her homeland of Persia.

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Images below: Artist rendition of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, left; aerial view of Jardin Atlantique (The Hanging Gardens of Montparnasse), right.

Comparing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon with the Hanging Gardens of Montparnasse

The Jardin Atlantique is surrounded on all sides by buildings, and so this sense of a "walled-in" garden lends itself to the nickname "The Hanging Gardens," since Babylon was also surrounded by walls. But what about the "hanging" part of that equation? While the aerial shot of Jardin Atlantique suggests that the gardens are at ground level – and indeed they are – they actually are "hanging" in the sense that the platform on which the garden was built is "hanging" above the railway station of Paris-Montparnasse, also known as Gare Montparnasse. You'd never know there was a train station nearby (let alone underneath you!) at first glance, but once you start to explore the garden, there are clues to the presence of a train station, but in a mysterious way. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...

My plan after leaving The Industrial Church was to walk over to the address I had for the Hanging Gardens, and I assumed it would be an easy destination to find. So when I did approach the address, I was a bit perplexed … all I saw were buildings, with no evidence of anything green. The address I had found seemed to be guarded by these concrete "sentinels" out front – with the circles as eyes, and the "arms" holding an upright "musket" – do you agree that it looks like a protected entrance? And I’m still not seeing anything that looks like a garden ...

Entrance to the Jardin Atlantique in Paris

concrete sentinels at The Hanging Gardens in Montparnasse

Thinking I must have the wrong location, I did continue on walking to the left of this entrance, thinking I'd eventually see the gardens. But after finding nothing green in the near vicinity, I went back to the original address and proceeded past the rows of parked scooters. As you can see above, the "sentinels" continue underneath the tunnel and "guard" the entrance all the way until you reach a point where you can finally see the garden.

Once inside, it was indeed a pleasant oasis in the middle of a busy urban area, although I didn't find it overwhelmingly "futuristic," as it had been described. But check out the slideshow of images from inside Jardin Atlantique at right to get your own feel for what it looks like.

If you make it through the whole slideshow, or jump ahead to the last few images, you'll see that I happened upon some dramatic golden grasses, and they were the cover for what finally became the first revelation that there was a train station below my feet. You can see in the picture below how the tall golden grasses help cover up an open vented area which is essential to release the heat generated by the trains below.

In the video below right, if you listen carefully, at approximately the 4 second mark, you can hear the sound of steam being released by a train, followed at the 14 second mark by the feint sound of doors closing and a train accelerating. While the video shows the grated air vent as the source of the sound of the trains, one wouldn’t have to see the vents in order to hear the sounds in this part of the garden. What made this experience surreal was sitting on a bench surrounded by these tall golden grasses, seeing nothing but nature, and yet hearing the sounds of the trains below. Had I not looked for a higher vantage point in order to see the vents, I could have simply sat in visual peace on the bench with an unexpected “soundtrack” of trains that in no way matched what I was seeing before me. After walking around most of the garden with near-complete silence, to reach this back corner where the train sounds rose up from behind lush golden grasses and knowing they were below my feet, that’s what made it a unique and somewhat surreal experience.

a heat-release vent above Gare Montparnasse in the Jardin Atlantique

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